By Robert Mortimer
1974 The Pre ~ Centre Plus Story
As a commercial merino breeder when our Stud ram source closed I approached our local Dept. of Agriculture Sheepo as to a choice of replacement Stud to select rams from. We ended up being convinced to use rams from Plevna Merion Stud, and selecting rams out of two different groups. After doing this and allowing the Sheepo (Frank Donnelly) to come and draft our ewes in half and mate them to the two groups of rams. The two progeny groups were identified separately and as hogget’s measured and compared. One group outperformed the other, regardless of the fact the original rams looked like peas in a pod. Frank had evolved the two families at Plevna by taking half the stud and selecting it on performance while the other half continued selection traditionally. This result created a light bulb moment for me as to the potential for performance breeding. With this enlightened knowledge I decided I could find the Stud that would give us the most profitable merino’s to run. With Frank’s help we progressed to progeny testing rams from a stud that had been winning at a lot of local shows. This trial ended in a disappointing result for us.
It was at this point it dawned on me that it might take a lifetime to progeny test my way to the most profitable Stud. The faster pathway became clear when I read in a paper about this group of farmers in WA Known as the AMS (Australian Merino society) who were measuring their commercial ewes and contributing their top few ewes to regional ram breeding groups who in turn contributed their top few ewes to a top tier, from where rams were available to the regional groups .
In trying to source some rams to progeny test I was told they were not available ~ but if we were to create a ram breeding group we could have top rams or elite AI sires straight away. On lamenting this finding to a local mate, his immediate reply was, "lets go through the motions of starting a breeding group so we can do a progeny test of the top animals and if we don’t like the progeny we can just close again." (JB)
This in some areas may have been a hard thing to do but the Tullamore area is an ordinary small mixed farming area, with no merino studs. At the time a lot of young farmers had just left school and there was a thriving local Rural Youth Club, where all were forced to participate in Junior Sheep Judging at Shows and doing Sheep & Wool Courses. It was from this base that 15 young farmers agreed to participate in the exercise.
The first mating was in 1981 with ewes from three flocks. By 1982 ewes were contributed from 15 flocks, involving 10 different bloodlines. This involved a base of approx. 20,000 ewes.
SID AI (Shot in the dark artificial insemination) from Elite AMS Sires were used in the new Nucleus and 5 commercial Flocks.
The progeny hit the ground and grew like mushrooms and the members loved them.
Because of my growing fascination with sheep breeding I was coerced into running the breeding program. (Robert Mortimer)
Centre Plus in the AMS
1981 ~ AMS ~ Centre Plus Ram Breeding Group
The CENTRE PLUS Breeding Program began as a simple Open Nucleus, in the AMS three tiered Group Breeding Scheme.
The CENTRE PLUS Nucleus was one of 100 middle tier Flocks that had contributing flocks below it, and a Central Nucleus Flock above it.
From the Central Nucleus flock the best animals were selected on their own performance measurement and made available through AI to the middle and bottom tiers.
The CENTRE PLUS Nucleus and Contributor flocks made major use of these elite animals for the eight years of involvement with the AMS.
The AMS had an identical Breeding Objective to CENTRE PLUS and it is on the AMS Genetic Base that CENTRE PLUS is founded.
A maximum profit All Purpose Merino.
That strange name !
When members of this new group decided they needed a name for the group, that was not a town or property, it was decided all members would return to the next meeting with a list possibilities.
At the next meeting all members accept one came up with blank ideas. John Blowes all excited said he had come up with what he thought was brilliant name while in his tractor thinking time. CENTRE for centre of the state, and PLUS for more of everything including dollars. Much to John’s surprise, his suggestion met with a barrage of derogatory comments, so it was decided members would have another go at thinking up a proper stud type name by the next meeting.
The next meeting brought a total blank from everybody once again. It was not till one member said I can’t stand the name Centre Plus, but I can’t get it off my mind. This was met with a chorus of me too’s. At the time ‘which bank’ the Commonwealth Bank had just announced its new logo, to a chorus of criticism. Their response was that it did not matter whether people liked it or not but whether it created a point of difference and people could remember it.
So the name Centre Plus came into being as it covered both the above requirements.
Pam Blowes won the competition for a Centre Plus logo. This one members did like.
The CENTRE PLUS group evolved through 8 years of AMS Breeding (1981 – 1988) where measured performance selection of young sheep over huge populations was shown to work.
Extensive use of SID AI using elite rams, saw an exciting new type of sheep evolve, improving many qualities we never thought possible. Body Weight, Do-ability, Conception, Birth-ease, Milking and Rearing ability, showed dramatic improvement over this period.
Mostly poll rams have been used since the beginning of the group, although original base ewes in 1981-2 were horned. Members being the intelligent people they are, always said when setting the breeding objective they wanted the best rams on index regardless of whether polled or horned, but when it came to pick up an allocation of rams they would put back horns and take a lower ranked polls. An exercise in voting with their feet.
In 1986 CENTRE PLUS became one of the first Groups in Australia to adopt Micron Testing of ewes in its Nucleus and commercial flocks. This allowed selection pressure on reduced micron in both the ewes and the rams. A major contributor to our being able to reduce Fibre Diameter by 3 micron between 1981 and 1996. (over a 15 year period, 22.5 mic to 19.5 mic )
Was Merinotech a spin-off, and what happened to the rest of the organisation, and when?
1989 Moved to Merinotech
By 1988 the AMS had grown at rapid speed to involve 1,200 farmers running 3,000,000 breeding ewes, with 100 regional Ram Breeding Groups and a 4,000 Central Nucleus.
At the 1988 AMS AGM in Perth where the 300 AMS members present heard a presentation from Dr. Brian Kinghorn & Dr. Robert Banks, that changed the course of the AMS. They put a proposal forward that AMS adopt the use of more advanced breeding tools using full pedigree BLUP EBV’s to aid selection.
As a result of this proposal Jim Shepherd and half the Ram Breeding Groups decided to keep using their current breeding system.
The other half decided to adopt the new breeding system and create a company called Merinotech to supply that genetic service to them. The various ram breeding flocks were to operate under the Merinotech banner.
For many reasons the embryo Merinotech service set up to supply BLUP EBV’s ran into problems and other options were becoming available so this service was stopped.
Most Merinotech ram breeding Nuclei continued under the Merinotech banner, although there has been an evolution down to a much smaller base of very successful groups.
Merinotech WA being good example of this and is operating as three tier system, supplying rams to 50 farmers with 100,000 breeding ewes..
As the breeding objectives of these Merinotech groups were focusing strongly on wool cutters rather than the multi-purpose objective that was so successful in the AMS, Centre Plus decided to become independent of the Merinotech groups.
Centre Plus was under the Merinotech banner for a period, from 1989 to 1993 although continued its own breeding objective and breeding program. We used an obligatory 50 ewes and 2 rams from Merinotech NE to obtain horn stud registration.
We have progressed to using 50 ewes from Gum Hill Merino Stud and semen from Leahcim Merino Stud to gain Poll Stud registration.
CENTRE PLUS progress
In 1990 on advice from Advanced Breeding Services we started an elite Nucleus at Centre Plus, to guarantee that the best ewes were actually mated to the best rams, rather than just relying on chance.
The first year CP began single sire mating, 1989, we used a ram that had been entered in the Hay CTSE Scheme. (Central Test Sire Evaluation)
By 1992 Advanced Breeding Services were able to link on Farm breeding programs to CTSE, provided correct management procedures had been followed. Centre Plus was immediately able to make use of this service, to become the first in Australia to link on farm progeny groups to CTSE.
Also in 1992 Centre Plus began FEC (fecal egg counts) on all young rams, after progeny from semen of a leading Industry sire began dying from worms while progeny from all other sires did not.
In 1995 Centre Plus saw a need to also benchmark some of the multi-purpose traits of our sheep.
We organized a PIRD trial (in conjunction with the PLG White Suffolk Group) to compare the Lamb rearing performance of our ewes compared to the performance of first cross ewes. The trial was run over two sites and two years.
The very positive results of this trial were even a surprise to us.
The genetic linkage to CTSE was done each year, till the Stud Merino Breeders were given control of CTSE and stopped the practice.
From this point Centre Plus lobbied Industry service providers to provide an Industry Across Flock database similar to BREEDPLAN for cattle & LAMBPLAN for meat sheep. These requests met strong resistance for fear of offending Traditional Stud Breeders.
In September 1996 LAMBPLAN - MERINO merged CENTRE PLUS and THE GRANGE data, creating the first two Merino Studs in Australia to be linked together genetically.
This was made possible by the fact we had progeny tested many common Industry Sires.
Within 10 days of Centre Plus announcing the MERINO LAMBPLAN achievement, Advanced Breeding Services announced the formation of MERINO BENCHMARK. A closed database with eight members, that was to be linked through CTSE.
In 1997 Centre Plus made the decision to close its Central Test Nucleus Flock from input of all live animals, because of the OJD threat. Move to semen only for outside genetics..
A new contribution Flock Nucleus was formed to harvest the elite animals from members flocks.
This flock is fully pedigree recorded giving exciting new information on the genetic level of all members flocks. This flock is used to harvest specific genes from members flocks and exert selection pressure on traits like fertility. Eg by procedures like mating for only 34 days, yet still culling all non rearing ewes.
In 1998 CENTRE PLUS also entered its data in MERINO BENCHMARK after the membership opened.
For the period these two databases were operating before the advent of the SGA MERINOSELECT database, CENTRE PLUS had sires on top or close to the top on many of the Index’s, in both databases.
Also in 1998 we began another trial to benchmark our multi-purpose genes, against those of breeds such as SAMM (South African Meat Merino) Rambouillet, Finn, Waridale, & Dohne.
Quarter crosses of these breeds now form a LAMB PLUS flock which is an internal benchmarking flock, that has captured some exciting fertility and growth genes to compare with.
In 1999 Centre Plus became the first Merino Stud to use the LAMBPLAN ~ MGS, TGRM (Total Genetic Resource Management) mating program. This program allows us to control inbreeding, while making faster genetic progress.
1999 also saw the commencement of EMD (eye muscle depth) measurements and fat scoring.
Along with scoring the six traits learned about at SRS workshops. (Softness, Crimp Definition, Lustre, Nourishment, Bundles, Skin.)
In 2000 a new ram breeding flock began, Centre Plus Kambah at Young NSW, using proven top sires and ewes from the CP Central Test Flock. This flock is also fully pedigree recorded.
2004 saw the creation of Centre Plus WA at Kojonup in WA. This flock being formed with the use of ET using genetics from the Centre Plus Central Flock at Tullamore.
Centre Plus is playing a role in progressing Industry research. Examples of this are scoring animals for temperament, then lobbying Industry to search for a means to create EBV’s for Temperament. Another Centre Plus proposal and trial has led to the Sheep Industry having what in now called Pedigree Matchmaker.
All Centre Plus ram breeding flocks are run as one large breeding program with several management groups scattered around Australia. They are owned and managed by those running the flocks. The breeding program is organized as one flock with all animals linked in the Centre Plus central database.
The group has a culture of research and addiction to the excitement of controlling rapid genetic progress into the unknown. Because each member has part ownership, the collective adrenalin motivates members to contribute and manage at a more meticulous and higher level.
Centre Plus genetics have been used in many outside industry research trials, while our internal database and genetics are also being used in a large amount of industry research extension.
Centre Plus runs a program to continually benchmark and monitor our genetic progress.
Semen from our all-purpose merino genetics are sold into six states with constantly increasing demand as the product speaks for itself. Sales running around 5,000 ewes doses a year.
Rams sales in a declining market have passed 300. Only 90 going to contributing breeding members.
There are currently 18 members of Centre Plus, running approx. 20,000 breeding ewes.
The semen and rams sold outside the group have a much larger influence on the Australian Sheep Industry.
All Centre Plus animals are fully pedigreed and measured and this information is forwarded to the national SGA MERINOSELECT database where they are linked genetically to the other 1.3 million merino animals in the database.
There are over 170 Merino Studs in Australia measuring their animals and entering their data.
Centre Plus currently has sires ranked at the top of this database on several different economic values.
Centre Plus members are justly proud of their achievements, if somewhat humbled by the immensity of it.